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The Long And Short Of A Pasture Plan

There’s a perception that planned grazing involves moving cattle every hour or every day. That’s not necessarily how it works at Lucends Ranch near Ponoka, Alberta.

“We have to get the animals to the right place at the right time and know why we want them to be there. If we don’t know why, we have to stop and ask ourselves if we’re just in the animal-moving business,” says Brian Luce. Learning how to develop and implement a grazing plan that balances economics, environmental stewardship and social life is one part learned and one part intuition. He’s been making steady progress since he first began looking for information about grazing some 20 years ago.

It all started with splitting one big pasture into two sections for 200 cow-calf pairs. Today, he and his wife Gail run 75 pairs and 800 yearlings in four separate herds through 60 paddocks. Generally, they background their own calves and send them to pasture the following summer along with the yearlings he buys in and custom grazes.

Reducing the size of the cow herd and adding the yearling and custom grazing components has added flexibility to their operation. He now has the option of de-stocking when moisture conditions limit forage production and prevent him from following through with the initial grazing plan, or bringing in more stock when there’s a forage surplus.

Today, Luce follows the principles of holistic management and is halfway through the two-year certification course to become a holistic management educator. He did double duty at the recent Western Canadian Grazing Conference as co-chair of the event and a presenter. His topic, Grazing 202, was a followup to Grazing 101, presented by Albert Kuipers, manager of the Grey Wooded Forage Association based at Rocky Mountain House.

Carbon sequestration triggers questions

Understanding the biological process of the carbon cycle — a topic of growing interest among experienced graziers — generated a good discussion at the conference.

“If we are trying to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, trying to reduce the amount of carbon we put into the air is not the whole answer. We have to look at how to take it out, too. Grass-based agriculture in a managed system is the best way,” Luce says.

Soil organic matter, the life source of food production, is 58 per cent carbon by dry weight. The combination of healthy forage stands and grazing is believed to be the most efficient way to pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it deep in the soil where it does good rather than harm. The overall benefit is multiplied by the fact that this biological cycle occurs without the use of fossil fuels.

“The sequestration process begins when the roots die off and release the carbon into the soil,” Luce explains. To maximize the cycle, you’ll want to set your pastures up to develop big root systems, then induce root die-off with a severe grazing treatment. The process repeats itself as the plants rest, regrow, build new root systems and capture more carbon.

Root die-off? That seems to run contrary to everything that’s been said about good grazing management practices. Don’t we want to leave enough green material above ground to capture energy from the sun in order to quickly rebuild and preserve root mass necessary to generate new top growth?

Luce explains that severe grazing only works to build soil health and sequester carbon when it’s part of a well-designed grazing plan. He uses it no more than once a year, if that, on any one parcel of pasture. During the past 15 years, severe grazing has produced amazing results. His records show that there is better water cycling, an increase in yield, and far more biodiversity in pastures after they receive a treatment.

Guiding principles for severe grazing

The key is to use a high stocking density for a short period of time — 650 head on half an acre for two hours, for example. You won’t get the necessary animal impact and duplicate the effect by using smaller numbers of animals for longer periods of time, Luce explains. In this situation, grazing is not all about consumption. The goal is to achieve a consumption-to-trampling ratio that creates litter in order to stimulate the mineral cycle. His paddocks are set up with permanent perimeter fences, then he strip grazes through each one. This way he can treat parts of a paddock or the entire paddock as he moves the fence along.

Plan for a long recovery period. Depending upon moisture conditions, fertility and the type of soil, it may take a year or more before the plants grow back to stage two when they can be grazed or hayed again. As background from Grazing 101, Kuipers explains the three stages of plant growth. During stage one, you’ll see very little top growth while the root mass is building energy reserves. Stage two is the period of rapid top growth until the beginning of heading, which signifies the start of stage three.

Overgrazing means the plants have been harvested before they have had time to recover to late stage two or three. When overgrazing happens repeatedly throughout a growing season, year after year, the pasture becomes root bound with a mass of small roots near the soil surface. The plants compensate by miniaturizing, growing prone or dying out altogether.

There has to be sufficient biomass in order for a severe grazing treatment to be effective. The recovery period is the point to begin the rejuvenation process on a pasture that has been overgrazed, then follow up with a severe grazing treatment. Two strategies Luce finds effective for building that critical litter cover include bale grazing straw on the area during the winter, or letting the forage grow and grazing it the following spring when the new growth is more taste tempting than last year’s left overs.

A longer time

A pasture plan isn’t only about the grass and the animals. There’s a time management component as well.

Luce builds family time and other commitments into the plan. For example, if you know when you’re going to be busy — whether it be carrying out other farm operations, a weekend at the lake, attending meetings or helping out with something in town, plan to have the cattle in an area where you can leave them for a spell.

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